Harold Denton

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Harold Denton
Harold Denton testifying before the Senate Committee, March 2009[1]
Born Harold Ray Denton
(1936-02-24)February 24, 1936
Rocky Mount, North Carolina, U.S.
Died February 13, 2017(2017-02-13) (aged 80)
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
Alma mater North Carolina State University College of Engineering
Occupation nuclear engineer
Years active 1958–2017
Known for Former Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation
Spouse(s) Lucinda Vaden Oliver
Children 3

Harold Ray Denton (February 24, 1936 – February 13, 2017) was the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) and is best known for his role as President Jimmy Carter's personal adviser for the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident.

After graduating in 1958 with a Bachelor of Science in nuclear engineering from North Carolina State University College of Engineering, Denton first worked at DuPont as an engineer for several years, before being hired by the USNRC. After 10 years, he became the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, a position he held until his retirement in 1998.

At Three Mile Island[edit]

Harold Denton on left at Three Mile Island facility in 1979

In 1979, President Carter sent Denton to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, as his personal representative.[2] The arrival of Denton seemed to immediately calm the frayed nerves of public officials and stem the anger of a frustrated press corps. As reporter Steve Liddick of WCMB radio explained to writer Mark Stephens, "Harold Denton was trusted because he looked like a regular, down-to-earth kind of guy. And people wanted someone to believe."[3]

It was Denton's task to inform Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh and the President about the discovery of a possibly explosive hydrogen bubble above the cooling water, at the top of the reactor pressure vessel. The debate over whether the bubble would mix with oxygen and set off an explosion, fueled speculation of a meltdown.

At the time of Carter's arrival Sunday morning on 1 April, whether the bubble would explode was still under debate. Denton informed the President of the risk just as he was preparing to enter the plant. "...I briefed the President on this bubble and the possibility of an explosive mixture and tried to give him the two sides that were out there, but we still didn't have [a] single view on that," Denton recalled.[3]

Denton has won multiple awards for his contribution at Three Mile Island, including the James N. Landis Medal. In an interview with Dick Thornburgh concerning TMI, Thornburg said, "[Denton] proved to be a genuine hero with respect to this event. He was a much needed source of information for those of us who had the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the people in the area and the quality of the environment."[4]

Personal life[edit]

On 11 July 1959, he married Lucinda Vaden Oliver, and they subsequently had three children.[5]


Mr. Denton had over 30 years experience in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s nuclear safety regulation program. He was the Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation for almost a decade. In this position, he was responsible for assuring the safety of all commercial nuclear power reactors, test reactors and research reactors, and was the official authorized by the Atomic Energy Act to issue construction permits and operating licenses. He directed a technical staff of over 500 reactor safety and environmental professionals. Later in his career, he directed the Commission's interactions with Congress, State Governments, the media and other countries.

Immediately following the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, President Carter appointed Mr. Denton as his personal representative at the TMI site. He subsequently worked closely with Gov. Thornburgh and other public officials. He was the news media spokesman for the federal government during the crisis and directed NRC staff activities to assess and mitigate the consequences. As a nuclear safety expert, he has visited essentially all U.S. power reactors and has traveled extensively to nuclear facilities worldwide. He was in the first group of Americans allowed to visit the Chernobyl site and was instrumental in establishing nuclear safety cooperation with the former USSR.

In a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House, President Carter presented him with the Presidential Distinguished Executive Award for extraordinary accomplishment and leadership.

Mr. Denton issued operating licenses to over forty nuclear power reactors during his career. He often testified before Senate and House committees concerning NRC's positions and activities. Later in his career, he directed the Commission's interactions with Congress, State Governments, foreign countries, the Nuclear Energy Agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the media.

He attended North Carolina State College, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear engineering and did graduate work at the University of Maryland. Before joining the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), he was employed as a reactor physicist by the Dupont Company at the AEC’s Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. He was awarded honorary degrees from Gettysburg College, Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania. Since retiring from the NRC, he has provided advice on nuclear safety matters to a variety of national and international clients, including the US Department of Energy and its National Laboratories, the National Science Foundation, private power companies, and to the Governments of Austria, Japan, Taiwan, and Turkey.

He was awarded the James M. Landis Medal by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for outstanding personal performance related to designing, constructing, and managing the operation of major steam-powered electric stations using nuclear.

In December 2011, he participated in a symposium sponsored by the Japanese Society of Mechanical Engineers in Tokyo. This included a visit to several reactor sites damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami where restoration and enhanced safety counter measures are in progress.

Denton died at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee from complications of Alzheimer's disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, aged 80.[6]


  1. ^ U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety hearing entitled, "Three Mile Island – Looking Back on Thirty Years of Lessons Learned." Tuesday, 24 March 2009 10:30 am EDT, EPW Hearing Room – 406 Dirksen Office Building archived webcast
  2. ^ Gray, Mike and Rosen, Ira (2003) The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Omen for the Age of Terror Norton, New York, page 224, ISBN 0-393-32469-9
  3. ^ a b Public Broadcasting Service (1999) "People & Events: Harold Denton" The American Experience: Meltdown at Three Mile Island
  4. ^ Public Broadcasting Service (1999) "Dick Thornburgh on: Harold Denton, NRC Official" The American Experience: Meltdown at Three Mile Island
  5. ^ "Harold Ray Denton" In Marquis Who's Who in America – 1994 (48th edition)
  6. ^ Matt Schudnel (February 22, 2017). "Harold Denton, nuclear regulator who calmed fears at Three Mile Island, dies at 80". Washington Post. Retrieved February 23, 2017.


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